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The Outstanding

For the Poet


"So our human life but dies down to its root,
and still puts forth its green blade to eternity."

Henry David Thoreau, Walden


In "Decreation," (Common Knowledge 8:1, pp.188 - 203)) Anne Carson meditates on a fragment coming from Sappho -- the seventh century Greek poet of love who hailed from the island of Lesbos. In that broken fragment 31 preserved by Longinus, Sappho says:

He seems to me equal to gods that man
whoever he is opposite you
sits and listens close
to your speaking

and lovely laughing -- oh it
puts the heart in my chest on wings
for when I look at you, even a moment, no speaking
is left in me

no: tongue breaks and thin
fire is racing under skin
and in eyes no sight and drumming
fills ears

and cold sweat holds me and shaking
grips me all, greener than grass
I am and dead, or almost
I seem to me.

But all is to be dared, because even a person of poverty. . . .
While Carson first draws the figure of the triangle of jealousy -- coming from the Greek zelos or "zeal" or "hot pursuit" -- wherein Sappho, a man and another girl are involved, she focuses on the fourth stanza where the man and the other girl are left behind and the lovely and lonely I shimmers forth. In other words, if jealousy is a three-headed dance:
she does not dance it. Indeed she seems to forget the presence of her dancing partners entirely after the first stanza and shifts the spotlight unto herself.

And what does the spotlight show when turned unto Sappho? Then obviously we see the poet as she is. As what is it, this "she is" then? She says in the fourth stanza:

greener than grass
I am and dead -- or almost
I seem to me.
Amid the darkening corners of a pointed thus dangerous triangle we find at its center a shimmering affirmation of existence: the lonely but ecstatic "I am." "Greener than grass," or bluer than the sky, lovelier than a "red, red rose" is the simple affirmation of existence (de Finance), the overwhelming (Uberkommnis, the 'coming-over' or 'arrival' ) sur-prise (to have the rug be swept from under one's feet) of mere being (Marcel).

Carson notes the spirituality of such shining-forth:

This is not just a moment of revealed existence: it is a spiritual event. Sappho enters into ecstasy. "I am greener than grass," she says, predicating her own Being an attribute observable only from outside her own body. This is the condition called ekstasis, literally "standing outside oneself," a condition regarded by the Greeks as typical of mad persons, geniuses, and lovers, and ascribed to poets by Aristotle.

Ekstasis or existence nowadays has been watered down to the mere presence of 'this' or 'that' thing; for it is true that only things are 'present': like this pen in my hand, that tree outside the window, that cloud in the bright morning sky. Students for example -- but all too-understandably -- leave a lecture about Being thinking that Being is like this or that being or 'merely there' as chairs are merely where one sits, the table as where one writes, the teacher as to whom one listens or one despises.

Yet according to Heidegger, therein lies the difference to be thought of, that is, the 'ontological difference' -- the difference between this or that being and its Be-ing. The Greek ekstatis shows the 'active' element, if you wish, of the being: ex-is-tence shows (or hides) the 'coming out' (ex) from its being (its '-is') into a state of true existence (-tence).

In simpler terms, perhaps to exist is to come out of the self in a luminous showing; to reveal the self in its self by its self as its self; to finally be seen ("to be is to be perceived," as Berkley says) and to be affirmed by an Other (the blade of green grass or the carress of the beloved).

I am: the Outstanding.

For to stand-out is to finally break-through the veil of beings, i.e., of things, and be what I am as that which out-stands (stands over) even the self as mere sub-ject (subiectum or that under which things are placed) or before whom the constellation of objects (obiectum or that which is thrown, pro-jected before) stand against.

If to Be is to overwhelmingly come-over or to over-pass that which is merely a being (even my being), whither does Being go and what does it leave behind?
I do not know.

(How could I possibly know?)

But Sappho herself offers a clue as to that which is left behind. To recall:

greener than grass
I am and dead -- or almost
I seem to me.

The "I am" simply is; what is left behind in that standing-out-into-Being is what is dead
or at least "almost" dead: my being. How so?

Just take a look at a corpse and you too shall see as Sappho perhaps saw. What did she see? Or what did she perhaps think about?

We respond heuristically: the unthought difference between the cold corpse and the departed person, which for the child merely sleeps while we weep and gaze at what is left (what is "dead -- or almost / I seem to me") and wonder where did he really go.

"Children and fools tell the truth," as an old saying goes.

Yet the ex-ist-ence or the outstanding standing out in mania, in fools or in "mad persons," which Plato says is nothing other than love, will altogether be another story which would 'en-trail' another path for thinking.




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